HEATHER AND IVAN MORISON’S FROST KING
INTRODUCTION BY SCOTT SKINNER
For those of us with no formal training in art, but rather an appreciation that has grown through observation, conversation and experimentation, the art of Ivan and Heather Morison is anything but obvious. Their work moves from whimsical buildings in the depth of the forest, to a mobile bookmobile, to bizarre puppet performances, to imaginary skyscapes, and finally to kites. It is hard for me to get a real grasp on their art, but they have engaged me with their enthusiasm, their imagery, and their thought-provoking voyages.
Their work is always in progress and may take many final forms: fanciful stories, wild and imaginative buildings, close-to-disturbing photography, sculpture, and, recently, very ambitious kites. Within all of these disciplines, I think it is unfair to call them just “artists.” Instead, I see them as “participants.“ They are in the middle of the stories they create, observing interactions with nature, with other artists, and with varied audiences. They are sometimes characters in a play, other times the directors of other actors, and often simply passive recorders of events.
Ivan and Heather have been taken by kites. Like many of us, they started with the simple joys of flying them, but then found interactions with other fliers, and the joy of this basic interaction without environment.
Their ideas are like many of their works: large scale, and in learning about kites they have been tutored by experienced kite-man Carl Robertshaw (an Englishman). With his help, they produced a large-scale, tetrahedral- style kite that was debuted for the kite community at 2009’s Bristol International Kite Festival. As “outsiders” to our community, their efforts were largely overlooked, but the large and imaginative structure could not be ignored. Here was an example of taking giant steps in kite making without the baggage of innumerable baby- steps. Like S.F. Cody, they just did it.
Their recent installation at Open Satellite in Bellevue, Washington entitled Frost King resulted from research done in the Drachen Foundation archives and was inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s experimentation with man lifting kites. Ivan and Heather have promised to revisit kites in the future.
Will it mean more kites, outdoor sculpture, or voyages to new artistic ideas and techniques?
CURATORIAL STATEMENT BY ERIC FREDERICKSEN
Inside a gleaming high-rise apartment building stands a charred and vacant ruin. Built of wood by the English artists Heather and Ivan Morison, this work is a slatted wall scaled to a gallery that barely contains it. The wall has a slight bend in the middle and leans forward into the space, supporting its weight in a position that should seem precarious, but does not, and suggests instability though firmly rooted to the ground. Or maybe it’s not falling. It’s waiting for a strong enough wind to catch it up, carry it off into the sky. Heather quotes from the science fiction writer Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe, and Everything on this point: “There is an art, […] or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” (Adams, p. 75*)
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Page numbers refer to sources listed at the end of the article.
Heather and Ivan Morison make art through active engagement with materials, histories, sites, and processes. They have developed their practice through peripatetic travels that have taken them around England and to Siberia, Tasmania, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, and now Bellevue, Washington. Working less like tourists than traders, the Morisons return to their home (which has variously been in Birmingham, rural Wales, and as of this year, Brighton) to develop long-term projects informed by their investigations abroad.
In recent years, their interest in post- apocalyptic science fiction and the catastrophic tenor of the times has inspired a series of works informed by research into primitive and countercultural dwellings. Let the title of one 2008 piece, How to Survive the Coming Bad Years, stand for this whole. This post-apocalyptic imaginary is only one strand in their practice, but it is an increasingly central one, underlying their research and work during their residency at Open Satellite.
The Morisons came to Bellevue thinking of Detroit. Bellevue – a car-centered, fast- growing edge city of glassy high-rise towers on large blocks connected by broad avenues; a city structured around retail, recreation, and technology, its central civic institution a shopping mall – is a dream of a future of pleasure and consumption. Detroit, Motor City, is a shrinking city of the 20th century, its spectacular high-rise ruins reminders of its mid-century industrial might and its stunning collapse. Detroit was for years notorious for “Devil’s Night,” the night before Halloween, a hellish holiday celebrated by torching vacant buildings across the city. An imaginative leap brought these two cities together for the artists.
American cities grow from nothing, on the least likely of soils, in the middle of deserts or on top of geological faults, and they
The Morisons’ Frost King at Open Satellite in Bellevue, WA. Structurally it is a wall, a timber frame supporting infilled walls of boards, angled like shutters that admit or deny views through the sculpture as a viewer moves around the form.
decline as quickly as they rise. Bellevue has its gleaming new apartment buildings, but many of them are empty. The lurching boom-and-bust cycle of real estate development spurs speculative construction that, no matter how quickly built, can never quite keep pace with the business cycle that always ends this way, until the next upturn.
Thinking of the ruins of Detroit, Ivan Morison considered visiting them, but chose instead to travel south, driving thirteen hours to reach Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s massive work of land art on the Great Salt Lake. Formed from rocks bulldozed into the lake in 1970, Spiral Jetty is a massive ruin built in a sublime landscape that has been heavily industrialized. The jetty has been regularly submerged in the lake’s waters, subject to the water needs of various industries and to the Southwest’s perpetual cycles of drought. As the jetty re-emerges from the lake, it collects on its rock surfaces beautiful crystals formed of the lake’s rich mineral deposits. These crystals suggest creation amid destruction, a cyclical process rather than the finality of ruin. Ivan collected a few of these and returned to Bellevue to begin work.
It’s worth pausing here to consider another Robert Smithson work, Hotel Palenque, a narrated slideshow made during a trip to Mexico to see the great Mayan cities there. Instead of working with the ruins of Palenque, Smithson became interested in an unfinished hotel that had become a ruin before it had ever been finished. A new ruin, an artifact of the present, this site became more interesting to Smithson than the grand ruined cities of a lost civilization.
Ivan spent days building maquettes in the Open Satellite gallery, firepits in sprayfoam and crystal, and models for kites that would become the basis for a massive sculpture.
Open Satellite director Yoko Ott reports him running through the space holding folded sheets of cardboard, testing them for their lift potential. Heather then joined him in Bellevue and the work began in earnest, starting with the milling of three Douglas firs. Su Development, the patron of Open Satellite and developer of the building that hosts it, felled the trees to make way for a new apartment building. A cleared site, a sign of the optimism of new construction, provided the basic materials for the construction of the Morisons’ ruin. Walter Benjamin’s often quoted line, “The work is the death mask of its conception,” (Benjamin, p. 65) is here put into play as paradox, as these dead timbers are brought to life in the form of a ruin, which, as we’ll see further on, preserves the potential of a future for itself.
A grid of 4×6 timbers was put together on the floor of the gallery to make the framework of Frost King, and then trucked out, along with the milled fir planks, to Tieton in eastern Washington. There, the Morisons and their crew used propane torches to scorch the wood, a controlled burn which turned their rough-milled, raw surfaces into glossy, charred obsidian crackled in patterns like alligator skin. This technique derives from traditional Japanese architecture: the burned wood is sealed, protected from decay and infestation, and it absorbs the sun’s heat when put on south- facing walls. It’s an aggressive act that preserves.
This paradox suggests a connection between Frost King and the ruins of the Morisons’ native England, artifacts of the innumerable disasters given to a nation over the course of a long history. These ruins are protected as heritage sites, preserved in a condition of destruction. The English academic Steven Connor has said “Ruins in fact hold death at bay. Having undergone a pseudo-decay, the process of decay seems to have been arrested in them.”
As architecture, the Morisons’ Frost King is more fragment than building. Structurally it is a wall, a timber frame supporting infilled walls of boards, angled like shutters that admit or deny views through the sculpture as a viewer moves around the form. It is a sculpture because it stands, self-supporting, in the space, because it engages the space of the viewer, because it changes as the viewer’s position changes.
And Frost King is more than ruin. It can be thought of as a maquette, a model grossly larger than the thing it models. The artists’ readings on Alexander Graham Bell’s investigation into kites as vehicles for manned flight, in the first years of the 20th century, are significant here. In a court deposition related to a patent dispute, Bell described his work with kites. Starting from a simple box kite model, he said, “I constructed larger and larger kites of this kind, until finally I constructed one so large that it would not fly.” (Beinn-Bhreagh Recorder, p. 198) As the structure’s dimensions grew by squaring, the weight cubed, making the model impractical at large scale. This led Bell to conceive a tetrahedronal structure using compound forms, kites added to kites, such that the weight increased proportionally to the scale. “So I went on making larger and larger compound forms, until at last I constructed a kite known as the ‘Frost King,’ which successfully carried a man on the flying line,” (Beinn-Bhreagh Recorder, p. 199) he testified.
The kite’s name likely derives from the title of a fairy tale about King Jack Frost written by an 11-year-old Helen Keller in 1891. Bell was instrumental in Keller meeting Anne Sullivan, her great teacher. The story brought Keller grief when it was determined to have been largely plagiarized, but one of her original passages in the tale, a description of King Frost’s palace, is worth quoting here:
King Frost lives in a beautiful palace far to the North, in the land of perpetual snow. The palace, which is magnificent beyond description, was built centuries ago, in the reign of King Glacier. At a little distance from the palace we might easily mistake it for a mountain whose peaks were mounting heavenward to receive the last kiss of the departing day. But on nearer approach we should discover our error. What we had supposed to be peaks were in reality a thousand glittering spires. Nothing could be more beautiful than the architecture of this ice-palace. The walls are curiously constructed of massive blocks of ice which terminate in cliff-like towers. The entrance to the palace is at the end of an arched recess, and it is guarded night and day by twelve soldierly-looking white Bears. (Keller, p. 407)
The Morisons’ Frost King draws from both kite and story. This beautiful palace, has been arrested in its decline, leaning but not falling, burned in order to be preserved. It suggests a possible future, not frozen in its state but potentially able to reach another state.
Thinking of a faraway (or near-at-hand) future, of a climactic catastrophe where the wind has become a violent tempest, and Frost King’s shutters become aerofoils, the Morisons imagine a new ending to the story of King Frost: “At the end of our story the structure flies away with someone clinging on for their life.” This terrifying thought also contains a kind of optimism, a dream of a future where the maquette becomes what it modeled, a realization of Bell’s dream of manned kites. Frost King then would shift from sculpture to vehicle, tearing away with its lone, imperiled rider carried off by wind and fate.
Learn more about Heather and Ivan Morison’s work on their website: http://www.morison.info
Read more about the Frost King installation on the Open Satellite website: http://www.opensatellite.org/exhibition-2010-04-HeatherandIvanMorison
Buy the book Heather and Ivan Morison by Open Satellite Publications online: http://www.publicationstudio.biz/books/51
Douglas Adams. Life, the Universe, and Everything. Del Ray, 2005.
Aerial Experiment Association v. Myers. The Beinn-Bhreagh Recorder XVII:10. Accessed at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=magbell&fileName=137/13710301/bellpage.db&recNum=0
Walter Benjamin, tr. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. One-Way Street and Other Writings. Verso, 1979.
Steven Connor. “Sufficiently Decayed”. Talk given at Frieze Art Fair, Oct 15, 2006. Accessed at http://www.stevenconnor.com/ruins/ruins.pdf
Helen Keller. The Story of My Life. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921.
COLLECTING KITE IMAGES